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Newsview: Iraq may be main election issue
Updated: 2004-05-16 13:34

The turmoil in Iraq is changing the political equation for U.S. President Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry. While the war is eroding public support for Bush, it is also making it harder for Kerry to define himself for voters or promote his domestic priorities.

Strategists from both parties had suggested the election probably would come down to a few states, perhaps turning on different issues in different states.

Some analysts now are suggesting the race could broaden into a national referendum on Bush's Iraq policy.

As president, Bush has the ability to drive Iraq news coverage; for example, his decision to send his embattled defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld to Iraq for a surprise visit last week.

With fewer options as the challenger, Kerry has called for Rumsfeld's resignation and accused Bush of running an "extraordinarily mismanaged and ineptly prosecuted war."

Those in Kerry's camp have expressed delight at recent polls showing Bush's approval rating at the lowest of his presidency. But Bush's drop in the polls has not translated directly into a surge for Kerry.

Also, the Massachusetts senator has had to walk a cautious line as he decides how hard to go after Bush as commander in chief without risking a backlash.

Kerry already has drawn criticism from Republicans who accuse him of politicizing the prisoner-abuse issue.

"To suggest that this is a political issue is to fundamentally misunderstand the gravity of the situation," said Kerry pollster Mark Mellman. "Voters recognize that this is a very serious issue. They recognize that Republicans are raising questions, that independents are raising questions, that all Americans are raising questions about this."

Images of Iraqi prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers, the gruesome deaths of American civilians at the hands of Iraqi militants, a rising death toll and other calamities have overtaken the political agendas of both parties.

Bush and Kerry spent last week stressing domestic issues. Bush campaigned on education, Kerry on health care.

It was hard for their message to get out when local and regional news increasingly is influenced by pictures and stories from Iraq.

A story on Rumsfeld's visit to Baghdad was the top front-page story, for instance, in Friday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. An account of Kerry's visit to Little Rock on Thursday received lesser billing.

Working to Kerry's apparent advantage, and to Bush's disadvantage: Some conservative lawmakers and commentators have been expressing misgivings over the Iraq mission, citing intelligence lapses and Pentagon decision-making.

Bush sought to address their concerns in a speech to the American Conservative Union on Thursday in which he assured his audience he shared their conservative values.

That Bush has to court core supporters this late in the election cycle could indicate trouble.

Democrats immediately pounced. "Now he has to go back and spend time shoring up his base," said Democratic party chief Terry McAuliffe.

Political analysts suggest Bush needs to do more to court independents and other swing voters.

Polls show that more people are becoming disillusioned by the war. So far, however, that has not particularly benefited Kerry.

A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of respondents — 51 percent — said for the first time that the war in Iraq was not going well.

Pew Director Andrew Kohut said in an interview that there are "a lot of independent and swing voters" who could decide the election, but that Kerry has been having difficulty making inroads because their attention is on the president.

Voters must first decide whether Bush deserves re-election before determining whether Kerry is a qualified alternative, Kohut said. That could give high importance to this fall's televised debates.

Iraq also may command more attention because the economy, which usually is the No. 1 election issue, seems to be recovering after years of weakness. Job growth, for example was strong in March and April.

Of course, Iraq cannot continue to work against both Bush and Kerry. As Bush's father, the former president, once observed, the thing about undecided voters is that "eventually they'll go one way or the other."

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